If you protest, you’ve got to make the ask

Chuck Pezeshki

If there’s one positive figure in America that has formed the face of the response to the COVID-19 epidemic, it’s Dr. Anthony Fauci. Steadfast in his role as the spokesman for public health in these difficult times, he’s obviously the Adult in the Room whenever he attends President Trump’s capricious press conferences. Correcting the disinformation spewing forth from the Trump administration, in a method and manner that has not gotten him fired, during times when the president has recommended drinking Lysol will likely be what he is most famous for.

Fauci has headed up the National Institute of Allergic and Infectious Diseases since 1984. He is an icon in the field — for important reasons. He is known, of course, for his seminal contributions to medical science, particularly involving the HIV/AIDS epidemic, though his scientific contributions in fields as diverse as rheumatology and arthritis also earned him praise from the health community.

When looking at Fauci’s resume, it is very easy to focus on those technical accomplishments and hang his career on those particular coat hooks. But that’s not really the core story behind what makes Fauci the iconic figure he is. As he has so aptly demonstrated during this entire crisis, it is his combination of technical leadership and maturity that makes him history-worthy.

Many scientists have accomplishments in the technical realm that have deeply benefited society. But as someone who has associated in technical communities my entire career, the kind of projected calm and wisdom is something that few have. Back at my alma mater, Duke University, my advisor and dean of the engineering school there, Earl Dowell, had it. But he resided over the usual spectrum of personalities as inhabit every technical endeavor.

Fauci is 79. And while that is something noteworthy, it also shines a light on a deeper problem. Why are there so few Dr. Fauci’s that would be available to fill his shoes?

A quick glance at his career hints at the different personal development opportunities he had that are rapidly vanishing. He spent most of his career in a stable national lab environment. He had a series of positions in management that could have led to managing, say, the National Institute of Health, but he turned those down. He had, however, plenty of international collaboration opportunities and he took advantage of those.

On his Wikipedia page, it documents leadership opportunities, starting as a basketball captain of his high school team. It also shows awards from foreign societies, from Germany to Thailand. It shows great development of empathy — he was the scientist who, while under attack by AIDS activists for his response, built bridges to that community, and is now recognized as a hero.

What’s the point of this op-ed? Fauci may be the right person, in the right place, at the right time to help guide us through this pandemic. But he is also a vanishing breed. His combination of experience and character development opportunities involved stability of core institutions, with decent pay, that are far into collapse in today’s world. Fauci managed to do everything he did, while also staying in a stable marriage and raising three children. That points to a shared financial stability, and an outward focus to a larger international community for career satisfaction, that is vanishing in the world of the academy and its cohort, the national lab system.

You get a Fauci not solely through funding technical excellence, though in our country, that is also in decline. You get a Fauci through making possible the social evolution that creates profound leadership. And that also requires both a sense of vision, as well as money for shared global opportunities. In the aftermath of all this, we need to do far more deeper reflection not just on the first element. You do it as well by equally prioritizing the second.

Chuck Pezeshki is a professor in mechanical and materials engineering at Washington State University.

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